People on birding trips to Costa Rica usually don’t have the seedeaters and seed finches at the top of their target lists. Now if they looked like some of those fantastic, brightly colored, and beautifully patterned finches that provoke “oohs and aahs” among birders in Africa and Australia, the story would be different. BUT, since they are mostly plain old black or brown, the majority of seedeaters and seed-finches aren’t even considered for a Costa Rican birding hit list.
And who can blame such birders when the small, dull finches have to compete with the iridescent, heavenly plumaged, breathtaking Resplendent Quetzal? Or the bizarre-looking, dove-sized, crazy-sounding (in name and in life) Three-wattled Bellbird? Or when there are a bunch of stunning tanagers and honeycreepers with glowing colors that are visiting a feeder? No, it’s easy to see why seedeaters and some finches aren’t exactly a top priority when birding Costa Rica. Nevertheless, let us not discriminate. Heck, some finches you may not even see like the Blue Seedeater, Slaty Finch, or Pink-billed (Nicaraguan) Seed-finch. Except for the Tricolored Munia and House Sparrow, all of those little seed-eating birds sharing pastures with those big introduced bovines are native birds and lifers for first-time visitors to the neotropics. AND, when those unfriendly antpittas are refusing to show themselves, that Keel-billed Motmot is giving you the silent treatment, or any and all coquettes are out to lunch on the other side of the mountain, never fear because the seedeaters, seed-finches, and grassquits are here!
Well, they will be “here” if you are in pasture or young second growth, and are also usually pretty easy to watch. The three most common species are the Blue-black Grassquit,
the Yellow-faced Grasquit,
and the Variable Seedeater. To see how it got its name, when birding Costa Rica, check out a Pacific slope male
compared to a Caribbean slope male.
Don’t worry about looking for any “variableness” between the females because they look the same. In fact, a lot of female seedeaters look very similar (more so in South America) and present a major headache for identification not only because they look alike, but also because it’s just so hard to study female seedeaters when there are hundreds of other, more visually appealing birds flying around.
While the Yellow-faced Grasquit is pretty easy to identify, the Blue-black Grasquit, Variable Seedeaters on the Caribbean Slope, and the Thick-billed Seed-finch can be tough to separate at first glance. With a close look at the right features, though, they are actually pretty easy to identify. Instead of obsessing about the white spot in the wings, or that the bird looks mostly black, concentrate on the bill shape. The shape of the bill reflects how some of these seed-eating species can avoid competition with each other by eating different sized seeds. It’s kind of analogous to flycatcher and woodcreeper identification where the shape and/or size of the bill is often a more important field mark than plumage characteristics.
Although the Blue-black Grasquit is also pretty easy to identify by plumage (no white in the wings, blue-black coloration in the male, the female sparrow-like with dull streaks on the breast), notice how its bill is straighter and more sharply pointed. Sure it eats seeds, but this little finch (or tanager, emberezid, or 9-primaried oscine) is not a vegetarian by any means. With that bill shape, it’s probably bulking up on protein meals of grasshoppers, crickets, and other insects of the grass. And taking into account the number of times males do their little jumping display (hundreds each day during the breeding season), it needs a lot of protein!
Separating the Variable Seedeater and the Thick-billed Seed-finch is trickier. Although the seed-finch is bigger, don’t fall into the trap of using size as a field mark. Stick to the bill shape. The Seed-finch isn’t called “thick-billed” for nothing. Their bills are noticeably larger and more angular as opposed to the small, rounded bill of the Variable Seedeater. It might look challenging when studying the book, but if you get a good look, you won’t have any doubt in your mind about which species it is. The female Seed-finch is actually even easier to identify because she not only has that big, black bill, but also has more ruddy brown plumage than the olive-brown plumage of the female Variable.
Male Thick-billed Seed-finch. Compared to the dainty seedeater, this bird looks downright tough. It’s like he’s saying, “You talking to me..?” , or “Did you say something about my bill?!”
whereas the male Variable Seedeater is more along the lines of, “Would you ummm, maybe like to buy some Girl Scout cookies”?
This female seed-finch is like, “Yeah, that’s right. This is MY stream! Don’t make me use my hefty bill!
whereas this female Variable Seedeater is saying, “Oh how I enjoy nibbling on flower buds and itsy, bitsy seeds”!
On the Pacific slope, you won’t have to worry about copycat male Variable Seedeaters and Thick-billed Seed-finches because the Variable of the west has a white belly, rump, and collar. It does look kind of like a White-collared Seedeater though. The White-collared, however, has a larger white collar, is more buff on the belly and rump, and most of all, has two white wing bars. The female White-collared also has this handy field mark.
Check out the white wings bars on this male White-collared.
As for other seedeater species, the Ruddy-breasted is pretty distinctive and always has a light speculum in the wing, the Blue looks a lot like a Blue-black grassquit but has a different shape (more sparrow-like), and skulks in cloud forest bamboo and edge, and the Pink-billed Seed-finch really does have a massive pinkish bill that would frighten even the toughest of Thick-billed Seed-finches!
In conclusion, although I completely understand why you may not want to put the more common seedeaters, grassquits, and the like on your target list for birding in Costa Rica, they can still be fun birds to watch (especially if you make up personalities for them).
4 replies on “Identifying Variable and Thick-billed Seed-Finches in Costa Rica”
I saw the Thick-billed Seed-Finch along the approach road to Arenal Hanging Bridges, near the dam for Lake Arenal. It was a lifer for my local guide and for me – and it’s hard for him to get lifers after living in the area all his life!
Great post on seedeaters! I wish you’d written it two years ago when I first came here and struggled so much with these little birds. I like the distinction you make between the ‘tough’ Thick-billed and the Variable. Now I’ll just think of Robert De Niro each time I see the Thick-billed, which is a bird I do get to see with some frequency here near Turrialba. Here at home, at 1200 m, the Blue-black grassquit is just not to be found. Neither is the White-collared seedeater, which, according to locals, used to be very common. I can’t think why these two would no longer be seen here. It’s dairy country with plenty of habitat.
Glad you like the post. Interesting that you don’t have Blue-black Grasquit as it doesn’t seem too high for them. As for the White-collared Seedeater, they were probably trapped out of the area. Unfortunately, they are much less common than they should be in Costa Rica because they are popular cage birds.
I visited here as somebody helped me find out what bird i had seen, but more definitely heard! at Conbo Bongo near the Panamese border.
The bird had the necessary thick bill, but was nearly as large as a Dutch blackbird. The most noticable thing was its song, four notes starting on a soprano level high g, following the descending scale: fis e d. I heard and (saw it once)only early in the morning.
More birds, same place, we only know the sound of: one that sounded like a truck driving slowly backwards: one note becoming louder and louder. and one that sounded like an ambulance … all after the howlers monkeys stopped their saying good morning!, bt never heard again during the day.
Bye then, Erna Berg